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Scooters, cities clash over rider data

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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Scooter fleets are popping up across the country, and cities want access to rider data in exchange for letting them operate.

Driving the news: Los Angeles has spearheaded the “mobility data specification," a format for transferring transportation data between cities and electric scooter companies like Bird and Lime. A number of other U.S. cities have adopted it in some form.

What cities are saying: “Cities have historically been the ones to manage the public realm,” says Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. “But we had not yet contemplated what that would look like in the digital realm."

  • Cities need real-time location tracking, Reynolds said. “If a scooter ends up in a place where it’s not supposed to be, the company has two hours to come pick it up and collect it or the city can impound it."
  • Cities want location data, but sensitive data like credit card information would stay with the scooter or bike company, she said.

The other side: “I just don’t think the cities have made the case for individualized trip data,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Jamie Williams.

  • She argues parking enforcement and tracking vehicle distribution doesn't require individual trip data, which can be analyzed to identify riders even if it's stripped of direct identifiers.
  • There are also concerns about the data being handled by third-party city planning tools like Remix and RideReport.

Meanwhile, California's legislature is considering a bill that would ban cities from collecting individual trip data, allowing only aggregate data to be collected.

The bottom line: “Just looking at scooter data is too short sighted — this is a model for getting access to data for other transportation,” says Williams. “Scooters are a really divisive issue, but a lot of those people also probably taking Lyft and Uber and would feel differently about that data.”

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